Dan Stevens on Creativity, Comedy, and That Good Morning Britain Moment…

The British actor who made his name in Downton Abbey is having a terrific year, with three very different movies out or on the way. We sat down with him for an in-depth interview on all three films and more.

Dan Steven shot for Den of Geek
Photo: Nick Morgulis

Dan Stevens is a busy man. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire landed in theaters at the end of March, where Stevens played charming leading man Trapper, then anarchic horror Abigail arrived hot on its heels in April. Next up, August brings strange horror/sci-fi Cuckoo, which sees Stevens playing a deranged scientist. Between press tours, festivals, and new projects, he’s got a lot going on. And we get the sense he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Describing himself as an “experience hound,” Stevens is a man who thrives on challenges. He began his career in theater, made it big as tragic heartthrob Matthew Crawley in British drama Downton Abbey, and has genre-hopped ever since, from action-thriller The Guest, to playing Sir Lancelot in family fun Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. He sang and danced on stilts for Beauty and the Beast, played Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas, embodied a flamboyant Russian singer in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, and starred as a psychic mutant in superhero series Legion. He also likes to write and is editor-at-large and co-founder of quarterly literary publication The Junket. He’s a smart guy, reads prolifically, and has narrated multiple audiobooks, and admits that he’d like to direct one day. He is also fluent in French and German, the latter of which came in handy when working with German director Tilman Singer on Cuckoo.

Still, he describes his huge creative appetite as a double-edged sword. “Generally it’s quite a positive attribute,” he says when asked about his description of himself as having “creative ADHD” in a previous interview. “But it sometimes makes it hard to pin down the actual thing itself. The appetite for creativity is there but you haven’t actually created anything. You’ve just been arguing about which pen to use.” 

Despite his busy schedule, Stevens found the time to come to Den of Geek’s Manhattan studio for an exclusive photo shoot as the final stop on his NYC press tour—he’s cool, confident, and colorful, and an absolute natural in front of the camera. Chatting later from his Los Angeles home via Zoom, though, he’s stylishly dressed in a black T-shirt, his fingernails painted black to match. Born in the UK, Stevens lives in LA now with his wife and three children, explaining that “any Brit who spends a winter in LA realizes why you would want to live in LA,” when we ask if he’s missing England. 

Ad – content continues below

He’s back at home for now, but not for long—next up, he’s finishing off the shoot for Netflix miniseries Zero Day in New York, a show he describes as “a cyber-political thriller with an incredible ensemble cast” that includes Robert De Niro. His next movie, The Ritual, where he plays a priest questioning his faith, co-stars Al Pacino and is currently in post-production. He’s not a man who rests on his laurels. So are there any roles he’d love to try that he hasn’t had a chance to? “Yes,” he smiles. “I just don’t know what they are yet.”

What’s it like having three big projects released so close together? Presumably they were shot at different times?

They definitely were. I’ve been making these films over the last two or three years, and it’s beyond my control when they come out. It’s amazing to have more in one season. It’s lovely for me to go from one screen in the multiplex and walk down the corridor and see something completely different that also features me. I love that aspect of my career.

How did director Adam Wingard pitch Trapper in Godzilla x Kong to you?

He talked about the character introduction. This guy was going to be responsible for taking out Kong’s tooth, which immediately had my interest. I think it’s one of the coolest character introductions I’ve ever had. He’s really good at these cool beats. Adam knows how to make you look cool. He knows a great tune to give you alongside it. He’s incredible at choosing music for his movies. I knew that already from The Guest. It’s just fun. He doesn’t want anyone to be taking it too seriously. He just wants to give audiences a good time, and I’m right there with him.

It was quite a throwback to old-fashioned blockbusters. We see a little bit of Han Solo in Trapper…

Ad – content continues below

Someone described him as a happy-go-lucky Han Solo, which I thought was a really nice description. You’re in good hands with him, but he’s also not really fazed by anything. I’ve played all sorts of different characters and haven’t played anyone quite like Trapper, where he’s just sweet, optimistic, gently philosophical, and he’s quite happy to climb inside of a 300-foot ape’s mouth and take his canine out.

How was it shooting that opening scene?

I’m told by Tom Hammock, our art director who was also the art director on The Guest, that the budget for that scene was larger than the entire art budget for The Guest, which gives you a sense of how much we’ve scaled up! I had the rare privilege of actually getting to interact with a piece of Kong because most people are just pointing at blue screen, or a tennis ball on a stick, or a laser pointer. They constructed a massive piece of the tooth and a piece of Kong’s gum that I could stand on and interact with. So I’ve been up close and personal with Kong, which not a lot of people can say.

You worked with Rebecca Hall on the film, and she’s an old friend of yours…

She is, yeah, we met at university, and we ended up doing a play together. My first professional theater gig was with her, and then we did a movie together when we lived in New York; she’s godmother to my eldest daughter. We’ve known each other for a long time now, over 20 years.

Did you ever find yourself going into Hollow Earth to save the world and thinking, “Do you remember when we were eating noodles back in the Student Union?”

Ad – content continues below

Quite a lot. Yeah. It adds to [the story]. Not that anyone’s really watching Godzilla x Kong for Trapper and Dr. Andrews’ backstory, but there was the faintest hint of it. She’s got this eye-rolling respect for Trapper. Which, I think there may be a little bit in Rebecca Hall’s attitude toward me.

It also looked like you were having a blast on Abigail

Yeah, and I’m really enjoying audiences finally getting to see that because it’s one to see with a crowd. And I love making those movies. I love going to see those movies. Horror comedy is really up my street. Anyone who can get humor in anywhere is doing good work in my book. [Directors] Matt and Tyler [Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett of Radio Silence] really lean into that. There was some on the page; it was a little more like, this is a heist movie; now it’s a vampire movie. Heist movies are often kind of cool; the opening beats of Abigail play into that. Then they get to this house where they’re holed up, and then shit goes off the rails, frankly. They really invited a playfulness with the whole cast. 

A lot of it was led by Angus Cloud, who was fantastic to work with. He was throwing in improv left, right, and center, so then we all started doing it. That really loosened the script up; every day became fun, trying to make each other laugh and trying to make Matt and Tyler laugh within the confines of the situation, which is absurd. They are such playful filmmakers. I had a really, really good time making it despite being covered in so much blood.

It looks like Kathryn Newton gets the worst of it…

She definitely gets the worst deal. Ours, at least, was just movie blood, which is syrup with red in it. Because she’d come through that horrible pool of bodies, for the rest of her existence in the movie, she had to have, sort of, viscera. They mushed up banana and put it with movie blood, and it was all through her hair. If you look closely at the scenes after she’s got out of the pool, there are bits of banana in her hair, which smelled so weird by the end of the day.

Ad – content continues below

Alisha Weir, as Abigail, is a revelation. How did you find working with her?

She floored us all. She’s just such a pro. She’s a gymnast, an athlete, and an incredible dancer, who has a great sense of humor and a great attitude to work. That fight sequence at the end took two weeks to shoot. They were like, “Oh, do you think you could do a backflip and kick Dan in the head?” And she’d do it 12 times in a row without batting an eyelid. That string of expletives she screams as she’s being pinned down by Kevin Durand got a massive round of applause on set every time. Watching this 12-year-old girl with fangs in her mouth, just effing and blinding, it was delightful.

Do you enjoy doing stunt work?

The Guest was the first opportunity I had to really get physical and to physically prep for a role. I wouldn’t say there was as much of that for Abigail, but you’ve got to stay in shape to be able to do half the things that you’re asked to do; you’re on wires, and it’s exhausting stuff. And just keeping up with a 12-year-old vampire ballerina takes a lot of effort. I like working with choreography in any form, whether it’s dance or fights, it’s much the same thing. The physicality required for whatever it is informs the character. The way that a character holds themselves, the way they fight, the way they dance, has a huge effect on your body, and on your facial muscles.

Beauty and the Beast must have involved a very physical transformation.

Massively. I wasn’t just working with choreographers for dance; I was working with movement coaches. That was a very physical prep, and that really informed facial choices, vocal choices. I probably wouldn’t have had that insight to know to prep that character without having done something like The Guest. I’m constantly learning to be honest. I’m picking up tips on every job. 

Ad – content continues below

Was it daunting taking on such an iconic character?

Yeah, it was a great privilege; it’s one of the great animated movies of all time. To get to embody that was amazing.

Next up, you have horror-thriller Cuckoo. Have you seen director Tilman Singer’s previous film, Luz?

Luz is amazing. I really recommend everyone see that. It’s only 70 minutes long, which makes it easy to recommend. It was made for, like, 50,000 euros with a bunch of mates from art school. It’s weirdly disturbing and so smartly done in terms of sound design. I’m a real geek for sound design, and I like watching people’s early work. I’m not expecting to see the greatest film, but you can tell, like watching Adam Wingard’s Pop Skull, which is fucking weird. It’s the same with Luz; it’s a showcase of a brilliant filmmaking mind at work.

How did you come on board?

It was originally supposed to be John Malkovich in the [mad scientist] König role until very shortly before production, and then something came along that meant he couldn’t do it. I got sent the script out of the blue one day. I read it and loved it. I got on the phone [with Tilman] and started speaking German. He didn’t know I could speak German and was blown away. In general, you read something, and either you see something in a character that you respond to, or you don’t. I saw this character, and I just laid it out for him. Three weeks later, I was in Germany in pre-production. There was immediate trust. We both found this character very funny 

Ad – content continues below

in the midst of what is quite a disturbing, weird thing. It’s similar with Adam; there’s a mischievous quality to their filmmaking, where there’s always an element that is darkly funny in the midst of it all.

Hunter Schafer’s great in it. What was it like working with her?

It’s a really dazzling movie debut. She’s already a very interesting actor from Euphoria and she’d been talking with Tilman about this for years. She’d stayed very loyal to the project and really believed in Tilman. That speaks volumes.

Downton was your big break into the mainstream. How was it having this three-season arc on a TV show?

I started out doing a lot of theater. I did about a decade of it before doing any telly at all. I’ve done a lot of classical theater, and that translates quite readily into doing period drama because that’s where a lot of those actors came from. So I just found myself doing a lot of period drama, and that’s something that we make a lot of in the UK. It’s steady work. And that’s great. I just always had an appetite for variety. I enjoyed any actor who you can go out of one movie theater and walk down the corridor and pop into another one and see them doing something wildly different. You can go to see My Beautiful Laundrette and then walk down the street and see A Room With a View.

You’re a writer as well. Do you get a chance to write much these days?

Ad – content continues below

I do, but not as much as I would like. And I’m always kind of kicking myself for that. I find writing very fulfilling. I’m collaborating with some writers, which is nice; my writing tends to lean more towards prose, so I’m learning how to convert some of those ideas into a screenplay-like shape. 

I’d read an interview with you where you had described yourself as having creative ADHD. Do you find yourself wanting to try something new all the time? 

I’m an experience hound. For example, if I’m trying to paint with watercolors, I’m just like, “Oh, I wonder what it’s like to paint with oil.” And similarly with writing, it’s like, if I’m writing something, I’m just like, “Oh, should this be a play? Or should it be a poem? Or maybe it should be a screenplay?” It’s constantly morphing in my brain.

Do you think that you might want to direct or produce going forward?

Yes, at some point. I’ve been really lucky to get to work with some wonderful people who are amazing to learn from and see what works and what doesn’t, and to have the support and encouragement of filmmaker friends and colleagues. Radio Silence were the last ones. The amount of improv and ideas for sequences we were throwing in, they were just like, you really should give this a go. So I hope to honor that.

You’ve had this incredibly interesting, varied career so far, but when researching, one of the first things that comes up is the interview on Good Morning Britain with Susanna Reid when she asks you how many actors you had to beat off to get the role in The Guest

Ad – content continues below

That has probably been seen more than all of the rest of my body of work combined and will probably outlive everything I’ve ever done. That’s kind of great. It was very early one morning after getting off a red-eye flight, and Susanna Reid had been given very odd questions. I love moments like that. They’re unexpected. That was a good nine or 10 years ago, and because of the nature of the internet, it pops up on these viral meme sites every few weeks, and someone will send it to me as if it just happened that week. There’ll be a crew member who doesn’t know who I am from Adam and hasn’t seen any of my work. But they did see that clip on Good Morning Britain and thought it was hilarious. It was just pure reaction and pure very tired Dan on live television.

It was very funny.

The real answer I should have given was 17. But you know, I wasn’t thinking that fast. 

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire and Abigail are both available to buy and rent on digital download now. Cuckoo will be released in theaters on Aug. 9.